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POLITICS-ST. LUCIA: Is it China or Taiwan?

Peter Ischyrion

CASTRIES, Mar 30 2007 (IPS) - Mere minutes after the United Workers Party (UWP) won last December’s general elections in St. Lucia, its leader, the 82-year-old John Compton, made it clear that the new administration would not break off diplomatic relations with China in favour of a return to Taiwan, as had been the case when the St. Lucia Labour Party was swept into power in 1997.

“Our foreign policy cannot change with every government. A foreign policy must look at the interest of the country. A country has no friends – particularly small countries, you have to look at where your interest lies,” he said.

But the visit here last weekend of a high-powered Taiwanese delegation headed by Foreign Minister James Huang has not only brought condemnation from Beijing, it is also forcing the new administration to clarify publicly where its preference lies.

Foreign Minister Rufus Bousquet said that the government would “within a few weeks” make known its position regarding diplomatic relations with the two Asian countries, even as Compton defended the decision to hold talks with the Taiwanese delegation by saying “we are an independent country and we pursue the interests of St. Lucia”.

The prime minister confirmed that his administration had “been in touch” with Taipei “for some time and since the foreign minister was in the area we invited him down to discuss matters of functional cooperation.”

Huang said that the meeting with St. Lucia officials was aimed at finding ways to “enhance our bilateral relations and work together for the mutual benefit of our two governments and peoples”.

“I don’t see any controversial issue at all because St. Lucia and Taiwan used to be very good friends in the past and I think St. Lucia has every right to make friends with whoever it considers fit,” Huang told reporters.

China’s ambassador here, Gu Huamming, was not impressed. He lodged a formal protest over the visit, saying the presence of the Taiwanese delegation ran contrary to the “One China policy” which the St. Lucia government says it recognises.

He said the only purpose of the Taiwanese visit “is to sever the good relations currently being enjoyed between China and St. Lucia, and further to restore so-called diplomatic relations with St. Lucia.”

Since it gained diplomatic representation in 1979, Beijing has pumped millions of dollars into various projects in St. Lucia and also the wider Caribbean Community islands.

China has given millions of dollars to Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and St. Lucia for the construction of sporting venues to help them stage matches in the prestigious Cricket World Cup now taking place in the Caribbean until Apr. 28.

Political observers say that the immediate reason for this largesse is Beijing’s determination to diplomatically isolate Taiwan.

“Their top priority is to isolate Taiwan. Most of the remaining countries that recognise Taiwan are located in the Caribbean and Latin America,” said Harry Sung of the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, D.C.

A few years ago, Dominica and Grenada broke off diplomatic relations with Taipei in favour of Beijing. Of the remaining 24 countries that recognise Taiwan, four are in the Caribbean.

On Thursday, Suriname strongly declared its support for the “One China” policy and pledged to deepen cooperation with Beijing in several areas.

Speaking at a signing ceremony at which Beijing was providing Suriname with a 24-million-dollar grant for development projects, President Ronald Venetiaan said the two countries had become “good development partners and trustworthy friends.”

In Dominica, which has had three years of diplomatic relations with China, the government of Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit has called on the main opposition United Workers Party (UWP) to declare its position on Taiwan and China.

St. Lucia’s foreign minister has dismissed suggestions that Castries is playing off China against Taiwan for economic gains.

“The government has never gone out and asked anybody to make an offer of assistance, we have been approached with offers, so it cannot be said that we are playing anyone against anybody else,” Bousquet said.

He said the issues relating to Taiwan and mainland China were matters that should concern the two Asian countries, but the main issue for the St. Lucia government is the long-term interests of its citizens.

“We as a government are grateful for the fact that the Chinese have shown a willingness to assist, but I think in terms of assisting the general concept with which the UWP operates – one of sustainable development – [is] an area in which the Taiwanese are very proficient,” he said.

But the main opposition St. Lucia Labour Party (SLP), which failed in its attempt to have the matter debated in parliament this week, has described the ongoing diplomatic tussle as “provocative, insulting and humiliating”.

“It is clear that the strategy of the UWP government is to embarrass and insult the government of the People’s Republic of China, to provoke them into unilaterally terminating diplomatic ties with Saint Lucia,” said SLP leader and former prime minister Kenny Anthony in a statement.

“A country that conducts its external affairs with such duplicity can never earn the respect and trust of the regional and international community,” he said.

The revitalised St. Lucia-China Friendship Association has also expressed its dismay at the ongoing diplomatic tug of war.

“Taiwan may be an island like ours, but the commonality ends there. Its main quest on the world stage is to keep its few remaining friends and upset the PRC’s relations with others. Its principal goal in St Lucia is to push its friends in the government to break relations with the PRC [People’s Republic of China] at all costs,” said the association’s president Earl Bousquet, a former press spokesman for the Anthony government.

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